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The Mighty Buffalo

Canadian Bisons
The last of the Canadian Bisons, 1902, photo by Steele and Company (Canadian Public Domain)

You can call them American bison or American buffalo. If you prefer the more standard Buffalo identification, the official plural form can be spelled either Buffalos or Buffaloes. Whatever you choose to call them, it doesn’t matter because these huge animals are mean, bad-tempered specimens. And they are tough: like their meat, unless tenderized. They are the largest and heaviest mammal in North America. An average buffalo is 6-feet-plus in height, 10-12 feet in length, and 900-2000 pounds on the weigh scales, if you can get one of these SOB’s to step on one. They can run 35-40 miles per hour and jump an incredible six feet high. They can live 18-22 years in the wild, and 25-30 years in captivity. They also have a rich history: millions roamed the North American plains in the early-to-mid-1800’s. Then, by the end of the nineteenth century, they were dangerously close to extinction.

What happened? And how are they coming along since.

For centuries, there has been two subspecies of North American bison: the plains bison and the wood bison. The plains bison grazed freely in an area that covered the central United States (with points east and west from there) and the southern portions of three prairie Canadian provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. As far back as the early-to-mid 1700’s, in fact, before settling of the continent pushed westward from the far east, bison herds were spotted in almost every US state.

The wood bison were also known as mountain bison. They lived in the far north, grazing throughout Alaska and the Canadian Yukon; and the northern portions of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. To differentiate between the two subspecies, the wood bison were larger animals with their highest point--the hump--on its body ahead of the front legs; while the plains bison’s hump was more round, making its highest point directly above the front legs.

At their height in the middle 1850’s, the North American bison--or buffalo--were numbered anywhere between 30-70 million. Some estimates even close in on 100 million. Whatever the numbers, they were a dominant source of food, clothing, and miscellaneous tools and weapons for the Plains Indians. Then along came progress, the white man, settling the West, and overhunting of the great animal: slaughtering them was more like it. One of the reasons to kill them off was to crush the Plains Indians way of life, forcing the natives onto reservations. Another, commercial hunters highly valued Buffalo hides, which were larger and heavier than cattle hides. Their hooves and horns were used for the making of glue, their hair for furniture stuffing, and their durable skins for machine industrial belts back east.

In addition, buffalo herds were too destructive for farmers and ranchers. They were a menace and had to go. They destroyed crops, fences, buildings, and even rail tracks. Buffalo were also hunted for the mere sport of it. Their stuffed heads hung inside a library were impressive: a sign of someone’s manhood. And, last but not least by any means, buffalo bones made for excellent fertilizer and healthy calcium for livestock feed. Consumers of quality buffalo bones were the sugar and wine industries: in particular, buffalo bone ash made sugar more shiny and wine less cloudy.

After the giant slaughter, buffalo bones were a lucrative business venture for a number of years on the Canadian and American prairies. It all started with the coming of the railroad and the appearance of the first settlers. Buffalo bones bleached from the sun lay around virtually everywhere: out in the open, and especially in coulees and along river banks. In Western Canada, for example, the bones  were first gathered up around  1883 and taken to rail centers such as Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Medicine Hat and Calgary where they were sold per ton (about 100 skeletons made a ton) and shipped east to the manufacturing sites. 

Before the planting and harvesting of wheat could turn a profit for those involved, buffalo bone gathering was the farmers’  first cash crop, and--believe it or not--for a number of years was the West’s largest export. Removing the bones also cleared the land to make way for future plowing and wheat planting. Estimates of the bones shipped from Moose Jaw, alone, represented well over one million buffalo. But, the bone business all came crashing down when the “Panic of 1893” hit, the worst North American depression up to that time. The industrial eastern seaboard was affected first, shutting down that side of the buffalo bone venture. Then again, the prairies had been picked clean of buffalo bones, anyway.

Buffalo Bones
Buffalo Bones loaded onto a CPR freight train in Moose Jaw, Northwest Territories, 1885 (Canadian Public Domain)

By then, the great American buffalo-bison numbers were down to approximately 600 head, if that. But some American and Canadian ranchers came to the rescue, intent on preserving the animal for generations to come. Today, about 500,000 buffalo exist in various national parks and reserves, wildlife areas and non-public lands in Canada and the United States. Out of these, only 15,000 are free-range, not confined to any fencing. Yellowstone National park has a herd of 4,000 plains bison. Wood Buffalo National Park, whose boundaries encompass parts of Alberta and the North West Territories, has a wood bison herd numbering 10,000. Most of the 500,000 mentioned earlier are not pure bison: they’re hybrids, containing cattle DNA, having been cross-bred with cattle and thus semi-domesticated and being raised as livestock. Only about 20,000 buffalo in total throughout North America are considered “pure.”

I’ve eaten Buffalo meat a couple times. Not any steaks, though. Buffalo burgers, as they call them. One was pure buffalo, the other mixed 50-50 with beef. I don’t remember any difference. They were both very tasty. All in all, it was similar to beef. According to studies, buffalo meat is lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein than beef.

Not that long ago, in September, 2009, I saw a small buffalo herd in a fenced-in area along the Number One Highway in Saskatchewan near Indian Head, between Broadview and Regina: perhaps, around 30 head, from what I can remember. When I pulled my rented car over and climbed out with camera in hand, the herd - skittish, I guess -scattered before I could take a decent picture. I was at least a hundred feet away, and I was quiet, too. But they still didn’t trust me. Impressive animals to see live, they were.

I often wonder what it would’ve been like to set back the clock to the mid-nineteenth century when the prairies were still grasslands, and see for myself one of those massive Buffalo herds that shook the ground during one of their mighty stampedes. 


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